The Legendary Axe / Makyou Densetsu (魔境伝説) - TurboGrafx-16 (1988)
American TurboGrafx-16 Cover
Japanese PC Engine Cover
What happens when you combine manly barbarians, cavemen, and axes? You get The Legendary Axe, NEC's relatively high profile (for a TG-16 game) side scroller, meant to be the equivalent of Castlevania and Ninja Gaiden for the NES, or Revenge of Shinobi for the Genesis. Developed by Red/Atlus and released by Victor Music Industries in 1988 on the NEC PC Engine in Japan, and in 1989 for the TurboGrafx-16 in America, The Legendary Axe (Makyou Densetsu in Japan) was very interesting for its time. The Legendary Axe stars a caveman wearing nothing but an animal skin around his groin, while he faces evil jumping lizards, vampire monkeys, floating eyeballs, and other really annoying enemies with only a tiny little axe.
Per most late 80s arcade plotlines, rescuing the Damsel in Distress, your girlfriend Flare, is your utmost priority. She's captured by the half-beast lord Jagu and he hates semi-naked cavemen so much that he sends a veritable gamut of evil creatures after you. The hero, Gogan, receives a spiritually powerful Legendary Axe by the village elders so he can smite down Jagu and win his girlfriend's heart. The funny thing is that you hear nothing about Jagu, and you think that your enemy is Flare due to the game saying, "Flare is waiting for you" whenever you finish a stage.
The stereotypical Tarzan-a-like who's the hero of this game. Gogan wears just an animal skin and is by far one of the most under dressed heroes ever.
Gogan's girlfriend, who wears more clothing than Gogan in the game. She wears just a thong on the Japanese cover.
The evil cultural lord who is great at hiring evil minions who are quite difficult to kill.
When starting your adventure, you guide your hero Gogan across a lush jungle landscape. Right after the initial encounter - where you fall into a pit and face a giant spider, you gain a powerup that allows you to charge your axe. Your axe charges as long as you're not using it, and resets whenever you attack. Naturally, the longer you allow it to charge, the more damage it does when you hit an enemy. It lends a bit of strategy to the otherwise standard action, since you need to decide whether to hack away quickly but weakly, or dodge enemies for a few seconds while your axe powers up. You can gain up to four powerups that fit into the four holes in the axe, allowing your power meter to expand even further. When you have fully powered up your axe and use it on a full charge, the screen flashes while you hear a large explosion, and your poor opponent will usually die in one hit. The levels are also filled with little statues that offer bonuses, similar to the candles in Castlevania. Unfortunately there aren't any secondary weapons to use, as your arsenal feels a bit limited.
The game follows a linear path with sidescrolling stages. The levels are fairly diverse, from jungle landscapes to haunted to caverns to ruined castles. The levels are referred to as zones, with five in total. Some of the levels are so huge that they are divided into letters. Interestingly enough, the level design of the final zone removes linearity and forces you to memorize where you have to go - it's a large maze just like Bowser's Castle in Super Mario Bros. The maze has around 20 areas using almost every letter of the alphabet because it's such a huge stage.
The enemy designs are pretty funny, featuring vampire monkeys that jump on your neck, disgruntled grizzly bears, and gorillas that pop out of the background throwing large boulders at you. Whenever you a kill an enemy, they perish in a fancy little explosion, which looks unnecessarily cool. When facing off against the giant spiders, you even see their legs get hacked off as you deal damage. One particularly hilarious part of the game is the ending. When you rescue Flare, Gogan points to the right side of the screen where the credits start scrolling. Unfortunately he doesn't get a kiss; at least Mario got a kiss and a cake.
The Legendary Axe
Of course, there are plenty of downsides. The first stage is easy, but the difficulty increases sharply after Zone 2. The designers really love pits and small platforms so much that they also included lots of enemies that are more than eager to knock you off. It doesn't help that you get thrown back pretty far when you get hit, due to Gogan being a wimpy girly man who can't even swim. You can also be like Tarzan and swing from vine to vine, but the controls for this are cumbersome and requires precise timing, or else you'll fall and die a horrible death. Some of the enemies are hard to kill as well - you'll often fight three at once, and since they take multiple hits (or a single fully charged hit) to kill, that it's easy to get overwhelmed. During one annoying boss fight, you're fighting two boulders and the only way to dodge them is by swinging on the vines in the room. Since it's so hard to use the vines, you'll probably end up taking massive amounts of damage before winning the fight.
The music here also fits the lush jungle landscape, and some of it is pretty catchy. It was composed by Atsushi Chikuma (Super Bomberman) and Toshiaki Takimoto (Mario Party 2). Despite fitting the setting, the music suffers from a limited number of music tracks, so you listen to same tracks in this game over and over quite frequently.
Like most early TurboGrafx-16 titles, the visuals are marginally better than a later gen 8-bit game, although the expanded color pallette allows for more detailed backgrounds and sprites. The jungle setting looks pretty decent, as does the animated fire in the fireplaces in the final stage. The last boss has animated tiles on his body, giving him an almost psychedelic look. Sometimes the designers went a bit overboard though. For example, when Gogan crosses the foreground he gets lost in it, making him impossible to see, and it's easy to get hit by the invisible enemies that are hiding there. Still, despite some of these frustrations, it's one of the better early HuCard titles, and one of the more notable games on the system.
The Legendary Axe II / Ankoku Densetsu (暗黒伝説) - TurboGrafx-16 (1990)
American TurboGrafx-16 Cover
Japanese PC Engine Cover
In 1990, Victor Musical Industries decided that the next Legendary Axe title should be based around almost-naked barbarians instead of almost-naked cavemen. They also tossed away the charging system that made the first game so unique, and designed a game that didn't even look remotely like its predecessor. In spite of this, The Legendary Axe II is still a pretty decent game in its own right, if mostly because it's not nearly as frustrating. The American title is misleading due the game not featuring an axe as the main weapon (even though it's got a couple midget barbarians holding bigass axes on the cover). In fact, the Japanese title, "Ankoku Densetsu" roughly translates to "Dark Legend". The different titles have led people to believe that the American branch of Turbo Technologies Inc simply picked up a random game and slapped The Legendary Axe license onto it, but it was also marketed as a sequel in Japan, despite the different game and completely different theme.
The intro is ever-so-slightly reminiscent of Ninja Gaiden. You see lighting flashing while two barbarians are fighting. The hero, Prince Sirius loses to his brother Zach and is tossed off of a cliff into the first stage. The manual expounds upon all of this nonsense - King Brace, who saved the world from the evil, most despicable entity known only as "King Drodam," united the kingdom and married Queen Grace, who bore two sons. Everybody was happy in the valley until good ol' King Brace died and his two sons, Sirius and Zach, fight for the throne.
The manly hero who wears nothing but a thong - this dislike of clothes is of the only relations to the original game. He likes to show off his concave stomach whenever he can and he likes to dance!
Your Evil Brother, who wants the throne so he can be king for a day.
There are some pretty substantial changes in your arsenal, beyond the removal of the charging system. For starters, there are now multiple weapons. The sword is your default weapon and has standard reach and power. The morning star can attack in four directions and has the longest reach of all the weapons, but has the lowest attack power. The axe has the highest attack power, but the shortest reach. You can also lob smart bombs by hitting the Run button, which attacks everything on the screen.
The level design has also undergone a significant overhaul. There's much less platforming than the original game, which is a mixed blessing - on one hand, it removes all of the annoying jumps of its predecessor, but it also makes the landscape seem kinda dull and colorless. It doesn't help that the game looks pretty terrible - the whole game is overly dark, the backgrounds are sparsely detailed, and the sprites are quite laughable. Like the first game, most of the stages are fairly linear, except for the final stage, which is an incredible labyrinth that makes Daedalus' labyrinth pale in comparison.
The removal of the charging system also has its pros and cons. On one hand, it removed the unique stop-and-go feeling of its predecessor, but it also means that the enemies are much less aggravating to kill. The control is also a lot more solid, and your character can jump fairly high, and can even bounce of your foe's heads Super Mario Bros. style. The only thing that's a definite downgrade is the addition of a timer. With the timer, it makes the last level extremely frustrating if you don't know where to go.
Even though the graphics are sparse, there's still plenty of creativity that was put into the levels and characters. Whenever Sirius defeats a boss, he goes into his manly pose where he shows off his muscles and his concave stomach with such enthusiasm. Sometimes, Sirius doesn't just pose - he'll do a dance or show off some sword fighting. The third level features parts of an undead dragon that comes through a wall, which is pretty awesome.
After the third stage, the level designs get stranger and stranger. Level four is a skull tower that has one of the weirdest bosses in videogame history, a tiny little doll - it comes very close to the bosses of Cho Aniki in the weirdness factor. Level 5 is a slime pit that has exploding zombies and strange bird-like enemy that spits fire at you. Level 6 features and incredibly large tower with lighting rods that can shock you if you come close to them. The final level is supposed to be your royal palace, but it resembles an alien spaceship complete with robots. The whole game features such oddly disparate themes that it's hard not to like.
The Legendary Axe II
The ending is pretty strange, too. When you kill your brother, you sit on his throne and laugh while servants come to you, when all of a sudden a naked (in Japan) assassin chick pops out of nowhere and then the game jumps to the credits. Who knows what the designers where smoking when they came of with that ending, but it sure is awesome.
Generally, the music is fairly decent. The first stage sounds great and the music in the final stage makes you feel even more lost than you already are. When your timer has reached twenty-seven seconds, the "hurry up" music starts playing. It doesn't just increase the tempo of the stage: it plays a unique song that plays fast and sounds incredible. Unlike the first game, Legendary Axe II has a different music track for every level. The composer, Hiro T. Suzuki (Cosmic Tank), really did an incredible job here, and the quality is reminiscent of the likes of Castlevania.
The Legendary Axe II is often maligned for being completely different from the first game, but it's still a fairly solid sidescroller. It's not a particularly rare game, so you can easily find it if you know where to look, but if you find it, it's definitely worth picking up.
[Related Game] The Astyanax / The Lord of King (ザ・ロード・オブ・キング) - Arcade, NES (1989)
European NES Cover
Japanese Arcade Flyer
Just a year after the release of Makyou Densetsu in Japan, Jaleco released a game called The Lord of King (known as The Astyanax outside of Japan) in the arcades. It was developed by the same designer as The Legendary Axe, Tokuhiro Takemori, and features similar charging mechanics and level designs - there are even power up statues that look almost exactly the same. In some ways, it's almost a better game - the enemies are more plentiful and usually die in a hit or two, even when not fully charged, and the level designs aren't as frustrating. It even offers two player simultaneous play.
Jaleco also released a port to the NES, which, like many ports back in the day, took the concepts of the arcade brother and developed a completely new game for the console audience. The arcade version was much like The Legendary Axe, in that you controlled warriors in a vaguely medival setting, but the NES version casts you as an average high school who's sucked into an alternate world to fight demons, all told with Ninja Gaiden-style cutscenes. The play mechanics are similar, but suffers from most of the same issues as The Legendary Axe - there are tons of pits and narrow platforms, your character is so huge that it's hard to dodge or counter attack the overly aggressive enemies. Still, it offers a handful of magic spells and a cool weapon that morphs as you power it up. They're both pretty good games.